Hangwomen in the 18th and 19th Century.
Women who were used as hangwomen were only found in Ireland. Having searched the records in England, Wales and Scotland there were no trace that women were ever used to hang people. Only in Ireland was it found that women were used. However, using women was very rare. These were the only events that I could find.
These are the stories as found.
Ireland allowed women to be involved with executions but only two were ever made. It is reputed that in 1780 a middle aged woman from County Kerry called Elizabeth Dolan or Elizabeth McDermott, It is believed that she used both names.
She had been sentenced to death at Roscommon for the murder of her infant son.
She was due to be hanged with another 24 condemned prisoners. They had waited in their cells for the hangman. These were members of ‘The White Boys’ gang. The sheriff was waiting for the town’s hangman too but he failed to turn up.
Just then Elizabeth said to the sheriff, “spare me, yer honour, spare me and I’ll hang ’em all.” He thought for a minute, wondering quite what to do. As in law the Sheriff would have had to have performed the task himself if no one else could be found.
He stood and looked at her and then agreed to her request.
Elizabeth executed her fellow prisoners and was then appointed as Roscommon’s hang-woman and given a room of her own in the local prison. She is thought to have operated there from about 1780 until her death in 1807. Her own death sentence had by then been commuted to a life sentence in 1802.
The new gallows
As was normal throughout Britain at the time, executions moved from a place outside the town to the Gaol itself which is in a large square in the town. The new gallows consisted of a hinged lap board for the prisoners to stand on set under an iron bar and attached to the prison wall outside her third window. When the prisoner(s) were prepared the board was then released from inside the prison but withdrawing the bolt allowing them the ‘short drop.’
Similar arrangements were used elsewhere e.g. Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. Elizabeth became known as ‘Lady Betty’ and allegedly drew charcoal sketches of her victims. Her name was often used by parents to frighten misbehaving children.
Probably the most unusual assistant was Tom Kellet’s; he married a 16 year old girl who then became his assistant. Kellet operated in Ireland c. 1829 as the executioner for the NW Circuit.